Selflessness: Broken Paradigm 

First, I’m not against the concept of selflessness, of putting others’ needs above your own to serve the greatest good. 
Second, this is not a rant on anything or anyone, not my parents, my church, my friends, or my employer, not on any of the communities to which I claim to belong, and not on any creed or ethos. 

Third, this is not a humble (or not-so-humble) brag or attempt to elicit compliments. Indeed, I think the very fact that I’m struggling with this may be evidence that I’m not actually selfless to any measurable degree, despite my upbringing. Maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment. 

This is just a note of some thoughts I’ve been mulling over for a long time. I’ve decided to put them out into the universe and see if I can’t glean some peace from the sharing. You are welcome to comment. In fact, I’ll be keenly interested in your thoughts. But I may not respond…it may be too hard. We’ll see. 

Here goes, my first post in months…raw and inadequately edited. 

— — — —

I was raised in a conservative, fundamentalist Christian home. From the beginning, lessons of Christ’s sacrifice and my duty to be modest and selfless (in gratitude and emulation of that sacrifice), were instilled rigorously. Being thought selfish or greedy or envious was, in my family, as serious and egregious as being thought a quitter. And quitting itself was regarded as the height of selfishness. Putting others before yourself and family before all (except God), was in my family a kind of natural law, a fundamental understanding not to be challenged or transgressed. 

From the small courtesies — “May I get you anything while I’m up?”, “Please, take my seat ma’am.”, “Would you like the last piece of cake?” — to major life decisions — Does this house/school/career let me be available to help my family? Does this choice [X] bring honor or discredit to my family or friends? Will I embarrass/hurt/exclude anyone if I do [X]?– I was raised to think of myself last and everyone else first. 

As a general guiding principle, I believe this social tenet is a fine, noble principle that promotes harmony and a benevolent, kind, loving world. But it can’t stand on its own. To have these desired results, it has to be bolstered by a common understanding of the limits of courtesy and hospitality, as well as a clear definition of what constitutes abuse of that courtesy. Too, the principal must not be divorced from an equally strong emphasis on the rightness, acceptability and, indeed, the expectation of self care, the principle that even the giver must also receive. 

Otherwise, you end up with everyone falling all over themselves to be considerate of the other and then neither receiving anything in a grand comedy of the absurd. Or, more likely, you end up with a bunch of individuals who do nothing but consume the generosity and energy of the smaller bunch of individuals who burn themselves out on the pyre of selflessness. 

And I’m not even talking about “Mother Teresa” level selflessness. No, it’s the ordinary, small-scale selflessness that somehow becomes a gargantuan burden by the slow erosion of the entire sense of me and my and mine that comes from constant outward focus. It’s years and decades of accumulated yielding of the floor in tiny daily doses that destroys the ability to consciously choose “I want” over “No, please, after you”. It’s always having that pang of shame and urge to justify after the simplest choice that puts you first, like going first into an elevator, or taking the first helping of a dish at dinner, or choosing the movie you want to watch instead of deferring to the group. It’s the compulsion to volunteer to work the weekend or holiday or overtime because someone else’s family life, love life, personal issues are always more important than your own. 

Is all of that a caricature of extremes? Yes. Wildly inaccurate? No. At least not in my lived experience or in my observation of the lives of my siblings and many others whom I hold dear. I’m willing to bet that anyone reading this also knows at least one person who has taken the lesson of selflessness at least as far as neglecting their own comfort and rest because “there’s just so much to be done and not enough time”. When in actuality, if that person had help attending to the necessaries of all the others, that person would have more time and energy to spend on themselves. 

But that’s the central point: that person wouldn’t think first to spend that extra time and energy on themselves, because that would be selfish, self-indulgent, self-centered and greedy. 

So, at what point is it okay to think of you and your needs or wants first, without guilt or remorse?

That’s the enduring question of anyone who has lived a lifetime under the relentless drumbeat of the selflessness mantra. To be sure, everyone, even the truly selfless, serves themselves from time to time. It’s the “without guilt or remorse” part that’s the trouble. 

Because, unscientifically–and yes, from my own experience–there seems to be an extraordinarily strong correlation between a selflessness upbringing and deeply internalized shame, persistent guilt, and the unyielding conviction of unworthiness. I posit that these last, especially guilt, are the scaffolding that support the selflessness mindset, allowing it to become a self-sustaining paradigm. Without guilt, shame and the person’s belief in their unworthiness in comparison to whomever else comes before them, wouldn’t self-care naturally assert itself as the dominant practice? If seeking self first were not stigmatized, how would the collective good, the community interest, the societal need ever become a priority?

My point after all that rambling is that half-theories taught as full-gospel, propped up with destructive negative reinforcement, are an unstable foundation for social structure. Sooner or later the structure implodes from the pressure differential between inward need and external demand. What’s left is a twisted wreck of a once strong and beautiful framework. 

When the drive to be selfless supplants the instinct to nurture the self as much as the other, and sometimes before the other, the nobility of this ethos is corrupted into oppression. 

How much of that corruption and imbalance is the teacher and how much the student? Who can say? It’s different for every person, I imagine. But when someone who has always tried to put others first and struggled with guilt over acts of self-care begins to question the fundamental principle and to push back against the knee-jerk shame, I think it’s safe to assume that something fundamental is amiss. And when questioning turns to bitterness, all the best parts of the principle are lost. 

I don’t want to be that bitter cynic. I want to find balance. I want to serve others and the greatest good AND I want to be able to rest and be served myself on occasion, without feeling small and petty and shamefully selfish for the wanting. But having others give me a figurative pat on the head and tell me “it’s ok to take care of yourself”, feels patronizing, false and not OK. It feels like a back-handed reminder that I’m not worthy of counting first. Insidious doubt about the motive behind the message, suspicion of some sneering sarcasm painting me as a loser in this person’s mind because I want someone for myself, destroys any ability to accept what is kindly offered. That mistrust of the simple exhortation to rest and look after myself just reinforces all the negative thoughts I already harbor. 

So, if I can’t convince myself that self-care isn’t self indulgence, and I don’t believe it from others, what else is there? It feels like a hopeless loop. I don’t know if there is an answer. At least not yet. 

Guess I’ll just have to keep working on it. 

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1 comment so far

  1. lesbiannefree on

    Yes. I’ve lived the same struggle from the same foundation. It starts early. I was very young when I was taught the Sunday School song “JOY” – Jesus, then others, then you and that was reinforced always in every aspect of my life. Also being the oldest of five kids I think I got it pounded into me even harder. I remember my mother calling me “selfish” for wanting anything for myself and I remember, and still feel, the depth of guilt and shame that I was meant to feel at that time. When I say “still feel” I mean when I remember my mother calling me “selfish. The depth of shame has decreased in my life; the guilt remains strong. Somehow I’ve managed to progress in my ability to self-care. However I have far to go. Perhaps this is my life purpose I”ve often wondered. I wonder if I will ever be able to resolve it in this lifetime?! I hope so.
    And I hope you will, too.
    I feel your angst and suffering through reading your words. And it is beautiful that you’ve come so far as to write and publish all of this. Good for you!
    Anne


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